Exposing the Truth – Kate McClymont
David Marr has called Kate McClymont “the investigative journalist’s investigative journalist.” She has broken huge stories for The Sydney Morning Herald for decades, including the Bulldogs’ salary cap scandal and a plethora of dealings to do with Eddie Obeid – even writing a book on the latter in 2014. Here, The Beast talks with her about charging for verbal abuse in the Cross, dealing with defamation, and of course, whether or not journalism is actually dead.
Hello Kate, we’ll start at the beginning. Where are you originally from?
Orange, in central New South Wales. I grew up on a farm there, and it was great. I find that country people, especially those living on farms, have a certain kind of resilience. As kids we didn’t really do the hanging around malls thing or anything like that, and there was quite a lot of work to do, helping out on the property.
Where are you living now?
I’m living in Bondi Junction. I didn’t realise until I moved here that it’s called “The Jungo.” I’d say, “I live in Bondi Junction,” and people would say, “Oh, you mean The Jungo?” I’ve been living in the Eastern Suburbs for 25-30 years now.
And what do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?
The thing that I love, I think more than anything else in the world, is doing the morning walk from Bondi to Tamarama. It never ceases to amaze me how beautifully glorious it is. It’s there for us all really. Although when Sculpture by the Sea is on, the crowds there are not so glorious.
Which brings us to what annoys you about the area…
I worry about overdevelopment. I worry about high rises going up in certain areas. Also, why haven’t they fixed up the coastal walk around Waverley Cemetery after that big storm early last year?
Do you have any favourite local haunts?
For coffee, I love Bellagio Tuckshop, which used to be called Nelson Road Tuckshop. I also like the Cook and Baker down on Oxford Street at Bondi Junction. I love Ruby’s Diner, I think that’s really good. There are some fabulous restaurants down Bronte way, too.
I love Three Blue Ducks, and there is a new one that’s just opened that’s really nice as well, just around the corner, called Huxton’s at Bronte.
Your undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney was not in Media and Communications, but in Arts/Law, with honours in English Literature?
Well, I was doing Arts/Law, and in those days you could do an arts honours year three years in, and I did mine in English Literature, and then you had your two years of straight law left. But after my honours year I just thought, look, I’ll just work for a bit, have a bit of a life. I ended up getting a cadetship at The Herald. Sometimes I regret not finishing my law degree, but mostly I just think that I am so unbelievably lucky to have found something that I really love doing.
With English literature, I just loved it, and still do. One of my lecturers was Dame Leonie Kramer, who taught Australian literature really well. I love Christina Stead and I love Henry Handel Richardson, and I probably wouldn’t have ever read them if I hadn’t studied literature. That’s just the joy of studying it at university; it opens you up to such a wide variety of literature. I’d love to go back.
You’ve told crikey.com.au that, while you were at university, you ran a busking booth in Kings Cross, whereby you would charge passers-by to receive verbal abuse from you. Can you elaborate on that side racket for us please? Absolutely. I just had a fold-up table and a milk crate for me and one for my guest. And it was questions answered for 40 cents, arguments for 50 cents, and verbal abuse for one dollar. I used to make about 17 dollars an hour on a Saturday night in the Cross! It was great because people would pay for an argument and then other members of the crowd would start arguing and I would say, “Look, if you want to argue, you put your own 50 cents in.” People would pay you to abuse their girlfriends. You’d just say to the girlfriend, “You have got shocking taste that you would be with anyone who would pay to have you abused,” and then people would add their two cents. It was quite fun.
You graduated in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1985, when you were 25, that you started work at The Sydney Morning Herald as a graduate cadet. What did you do in the interim?
I went overseas for a year and then I worked at Bay Books, which was a publishing company. It was dire. I was there for 18 months, and we were doing this book on the ‘A-Z of Australia and New Zealand’.
Anyway, I left there and I went overseas for a while, and then I came back and I was working. One of my all-time favourite jobs was doing subtitling for the Australian Captions Centre. It was subtitling for the deaf. You had to reduce the language because people can’t read as fast as hearing, and you had to have the caption onscreen while that person’s face was on the screen. I remember doing it for a British Series called Minder, which was about a scoundrel and his offsider. It was really fun but it was so much Cockney rhyming slang and trying to reduce that without taking away the feel of the show was very hard, but great. Then I ran into somebody who got a cadetship at The Herald, and I thought, “That’s what I should do.”
So why that decision to pursue the cadetship? Was it the thirst for truth telling that you cultivated in your Kings Cross truth booth days?
Oh no, I think it was that I had grown up in a household where news and current affairs were constantly consumed. I remember I really loved the work of David Marr. I remember he gave a lecture at Sydney Uni once, and I couldn’t believe when I later actually met him in the SMH office. And now he is a friend. It was great meeting these people who’d been only a byline on a page, and then seeing that they are full of foibles and idiosyncrasies like everyone else.
Funnily enough, after I started at The Herald, I think my first job was doing something called Style Magazine, about cushions and pillows and things like that, and then I got sent to The Eastern Herald. At that time The Herald had such a big empire that they had inserts for different parts of Sydney. The Eastern Herald’s office was in Hollywood Avenue, Bondi Junction, just around the corner.
I had to write this gossip column called ‘Chums’. It was about the goings-on of the rich and famous in the Eastern Suburbs. I got so bored doing it, so I started breaking out into what I thought were more funny takes. I did a piece on a marriage where George Freeman and his wife were in the bridal party, and I wrote what I thought was a funny thing about the bridal party wearing sequins, which I said was the closest fashion accessory to armour plating that you could get away with at the chapel at Kincoppal Rose Bay. I started getting death threats! So I was a cadet writing about underworld figure George Freeman in the column of Chums.
Tell us about journalism at the SMH back in those days. These days my generation thinks of it as this rich journalistic utopia. Is that a collective reimagining or was that actually the case?
Oh, it was certainly the case. One time there was a coup in Fiji and there weren’t any planes flying in so we hired our own. It truly was rivers of gold. Nowadays, you have to get a bus to Canberra. Also, I think the freelance rates when I first started might have been $1.50 a word. It’s now 50 cents. For papers, there were trucks rolling out all through the night to drive all over the state, and it just doesn’t happen anymore. Now we don’t properly service major issues in country towns unless they’ve got state significance.
As a young journalist starting out, how did you lay the groundwork to make yourself indispensable?
It’s hard to say. I went to The National Times, which became The Times on Sunday. I then went to work as a researcher for two years at Four Corners, and I did a lot of work with Paul Barry. It was the beginning of the end of Alan Bond, and we just did programmes that took weeks and weeks of research.
I guess, too, because I am kind of chatty, even on the sporting fields, on the sidelines, people would give me stories. Once your name starts getting out there people come to you with stories. If my phone didn’t ring between now and the rest of the year, I’ve got enough stories to do. In fact, I constantly feel stressed that people ring you up and they’ve got a story and you just can’t do it. That being said, I still think that there will be a resurgence somehow.
I just think the demand for quality journalism has never been higher. It’s just the manner of distribution; I think the biggest mistake ever was publishers giving away their content for free and thinking that this would drive people to actually buy the product. It’s working more now, especially at The Washington Times and so on with Drumpf, but it hasn’t for a long time. Also, now I think people can be far more selective about what newspaper or TV programme reflects their own views already.
What was the first big story that you broke?
One of the first big ones I did was on the eve of the Golden Slipper. I remember spending all night in someone’s office getting all these phone transcripts of these organised crime groups and jockeys fixing races. In the end, I think the leading jockey of the time was disqualified for two years. One of the jockeys, Jim Cassidy, spat on my back and said, “You fucking bitch! You’ve ruined my life!” I thought then, and as I often think now, that even if you just write the truth, in the mind of the person you’re writing about, it’s always your fault.
Speaking of which, defamation is something feared by all journalists, both for economic and professional reasons. Are Australia’s defamation laws doing enough to protect the ability of journalists to do their jobs?
Defamation is just the bane of our existence. But I do think people have a right to sue for harm to their reputation. Anne Davies and I wrote a series of stories in 2002 about the Bulldogs using a proposed development with Liverpool Council to channel monies to their players outside the salary cap. When the story came out, Liverpool Council got dismissed, and the Bulldogs went from the top of the competition to the bottom just before the finals.
We had also put something in the story about Eddie Obeid offering money to the Bulldogs. Four different people had said to us that Eddie Obeid had said to the head of the Bulldogs, “If you pay a million dollars to the Labor party, we’ll unblock it [purchase of land; a poker machine license] for you,” and the Bulldogs wouldn’t pay.
We put this in the story and then Eddie Obeid sued, suggesting that we made him look corrupt, etc. Then, people who had provided us with the information, and who said they would get into the witness box, didn’t. We lost, and we had to pay $160,000 to Eddie, plus his legal fees, and it was terrible. You feel like a complete failure and you feel like a terrible journalist. It actually took a while to get over that and it always upsets me that rival publications often like to dance on the graves and misfortunes of other journalists. But anyway, that’s how it goes.
So, with defamation laws, I think it’s really difficult. I wish that we had the American system, where public figures can really only sue for malice, because truth is no defence here in Australia. Every lawsuit that comes in is just like a blow to the heart because you know of the amount of work that goes into it.
Clearly a huge amount of work does go into every story, and obviously every story is different, but as a general rule, what does your investigative process look like? A corkboard with red string connecting incriminating photos?
Oh, sometimes you have white boards, especially if there’s a murder. I took a photo of one we did recently, oh dear we were laughing. “Blackie does such and such, revenge for blah blah blah…” and then there’s all these arrows going everywhere, and then it turned out the murderer was someone right on the outer tip of the whiteboard.
I generally start off with two documents: I have one I put down the notes on as I go along, and I also like to do a timeline because it always forces you to look at connections between things and you just think, “Oh my God! That company was registered two days before they bought that land.” That’s probably the major tool of my trade: being able to do ASIC searches, property searches. And it’s really expensive. Each search is $28. The Federal Court charges $50 to inspect court papers. It adds up.
You might be sick of talking about it, but if you’re not, could you tell us little bit about your work looking at Eddie Obeid?
I first wrote about Eddie Obeid in 1999. It was these two engineers who had come to me, saying they had the contract to design and manufacture street poles for the City of Sydney Council. They said that two boys had approached them saying, “Look, if you give us your City of Sydney contract, we’ll get you the Olympic contract.” The two engineers asked how, and the boys said, “Our Dad is Eddie Obeid.” And they, like me, thought, “Who is Eddie Obeid?” So I wrote on that, and then people began to send in little bits of information. Then I just started collecting information on Eddie Obeid and did a really long investigative piece. I sort of thought, “Oh, when people read this, something will happen [to Obeid].” And there was nothing. Dead silence.
In 2000, for instance, I went through all of his property holdings and I found that he had had all these fires. I found that on the week that he joined Parliament, on the Wednesday he bought a property on Clovelly Road for $830,000, and the very next day he had sold it to the Housing Department for twice that amount of money. But every time I wrote something I thought, “This, this will be the nail in the coffin,” and it never was.
So it was funny then that the very first story about the street poles turned out to be, should I say… ‘the smoking pole’? The Obeids did end up getting the street pole contract, and took their [the two engineers’] design, took everything. They were secretly selling these poles overseas. They didn’t own the licence or the intellectual property to do it. So the City of Sydney, to their credit, sued them, and were awarded a $12 million payout, plus $4 million in interest and penalties. Of course then Moses Obeid says, “I can’t pay, I’ve got no money. I only earn $80,000 a year and my wife earns $60,000,” so the City of Sydney subpoenaed their bank records and there it all was. He’d gotten a loan from the bank. Like hello, how do you pay the mortgage on a $4.2 million dollar house when you and your wife only earn $120,000 a year?
Olympic pole vaulting, perhaps?
Oh yes. So there it was in the bank records, all of what we had been trying to find for all these years. Moses is in the witness box wondering which lie to tell. Do I lie to the court now and say I’ve got no money? Or do I admit I lied to the bank when I said, “I’m part of the Obeid Family and look at all these riches”?
Then ICAC came along and did the rest. We could have never got what they got. You’d like to think that you could, but we’ve got no way of getting behind trusts. Unless someone in the family or someone else leaks it to you, you’re never going to get any tax records or get behind any trusts.
What stories are you finding fascinating right now?
Someone has just dropped in [name redacted]’s diary. He left it somewhere and, now that he’s in jail, they’ve just handed it over. So I’m going through all his business dealings for the last couple of years. Oh my God, it’s fascinating. As long as we don’t acquire anything ourselves, it’s sort of a bit like finders keepers.
What else am I doing? I love the ATO stories with the Cranstons. I’ve also got the diary of a bagman [an agent who collects or distributes the proceeds of illicit activities], which is showing payments to a politician, so that’s on the boil.
There’s the Lionel Murphy things. I think he was a complete crook myself. Look, he may have been a fantastic judge… well, actually, I don’t think he was a fantastic judge. He really did do some fantastic things about family law, and he was always a bit of maverick on the high court, but he was a completely flawed character.
Do you support any charities?
I support Lou’s Place, which is a women’s homeless shelter.
Finally, in an ideal world, what does the future hold for Kate McClymont?
I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, and I just hope that I can stay healthy and fit enough, and mentally acute enough, to keep doing it. I can’t see me retiring. I think one day I’ll just fall over and clunk my head on my laptop.